May 2, 2002
Religious Council Missed Chance on Secession
By Shirley Svorny
In a statement released last week, the Council of Religious Leaders of Greater Los Angeles offered its opinion on secession.
Writing on "The Moral and Theological Dimensions of Secession," the group did not take a stand for or against breaking up Los Angeles, but concluded that secession advocates have not made a strong case for such a major municipal reorganization.
However, a convincing case can be made that changing the structure and size of government would have a significant
impact on living conditions, particularly for the poor, in Los Angeles.
Breaking up the city into smaller municipal jurisdictions is exactly what is needed to meet the religious leaders' vision of a "good city."
First, secession can promote the "empowerment and participation" of residents, a goal that council members espouse. The secession effort has already increased participation in community groups from the Harbor, to Hollywood, to South Central to the San Fernando Valley.
With 4 million residents, Los Angeles city government inhibits resident participation.
The council expressed a desire for a city that protects the rights of all its members - particularly the poor and the most vulnerable. In this regard, it is known that Los Angeles has failed to provide basic city services and infrastructure to poor communities in the San Fernando Valley.
In their quest for a "moral" government, how can the
fail to reject the status quo?
One concern of the religious leaders is that the city provide for the safety of its residents. This is of particular concern in poor neighborhoods.
Breaking up the city would almost surely improve police services. California State University, Los Angeles, economics professor Miles Finney has examined the provision of police services in Los Angeles County. Smaller service providers appear to do a better job, and at less expense. This is consistent with many other studies of police provision by economists and political scientists.
If the council is concerned about reducing crime and increasing safety in poor neighborhoods, the status quo is not
Finally, the religious leaders expressed a desire to promote a sense of community, social cohesiveness, and mutual cooperation. There is no better way to promote a sense of community than to create smaller cities in Los Angeles. Los Angeles is too big to offer the kind of social cohesiveness that bonds residents together.
Mutual cooperation, on the other hand, does not require a huge city. The effort to build the recently opened Alameda Corridor, a twenty-mile project running through nine political jurisdictions, shows how cities can work together to achieve a common goal.
The council report argues that, for secession to be worthy of our support, it must "radically alter the status quo by significantly improving the lives of residents in the new city."
However, despite what the the council report suggests, local government cannot eliminate
poverty, nor can it offer an environment where "health care, nutrition, transportation and housing needs are adequately met" for all comers.
This is a utopian vision and should not be held as the benchmark for secession.
All in all, the religious leaders have missed their chance to offer support to community groups engaged in an unprecedented, extraordinary effort to improve representation and participation across Los Angeles.
Of course, the debate over secession has just begun, with the Council of
Religious Leaders one of the first groups to weigh in with its view. As the debate progresses, and more information is available, perhaps the
council will come to see that increased local control is exactly what this city and its residents need.
Shirley Svorny is a professor of economics at California State University, Northridge.